CRF Blog

America: Democracy, Republic, or Both?

by Damon Huss

Some describe the system of governance in the United States as a democracy. Others disagree and describe it as a republic. Still others qualify both ideas and describe our system as a democratic republic. Which is it?

Defining terms is important. Republicanism in the new United States of America was clearly explained by James Madison in the Federalist Papers, which were written to garner support for the Constitution. In Federalist No. 10, he explained the meaning of “republic” in the constitutional context:

A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.

Madison defined his terms fairly precisely. By “republic,” he meant (1) a representative government, which was (2) distinct from “pure” democracy. Pure democracy was known to mean direct democracy, in which citizens voted directly on issues. The democracy of ancient Athens was a direct democracy, which Madison criticized.

Madison also specified that a republic consists of a “small number of citizens elected by the rest.” The American republic, therefore, could be defined as a representative democracy, as opposed to a pure or direct democracy. In the constitutional framework, for example, we elect our leaders, who then represent us for fixed terms.

Not everyone agrees that the Constitution created democratic government. Political scientist Robert A. Dahl argues in his book How Democratic Is the American Constitution? that the constitutional framework is not inherently democratic. Dahl argues that federalism, bicameralism, and the electoral college are anti-majoritarian and all serve to concentrate power in the hands of a few. (Dahl laments this, it should be noted.)

Another approach is that the both a democracy and a republic. This argument follows from Madison’s own arguments in the Federalist Papers. First Amendment scholar Eugene Volokh has discussed this argument on his Volokh Conspiracy blog, and presents an etymology of the word “democracy” as to what it meant in the time of the early (yes) “republic” and what it means today. He concludes:

Indeed, in the early years of the Constitution, many states were republican but not democratic, in the sense that they were governed by only a subset of the adult citizenry…. But today all the states…have pretty much adult citizen suffrage, and thus are both republican and democratic.

 Volokh is, of course, referring to state governments.

The argument that the national government as a whole is both a democracy and a republic is strengthened by the words of Abraham Lincoln, who addressed Congress on July 4, 1861, early in the Civil War. He used the qualifier “constitutional” before the words “republic or democracy,” indicating that they were interchangeable terms:

And this issue embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man the question whether a constitutional republic or democracy — a government of the people by the same people — can or cannot maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes.

For more about Lincoln’s views, see “Slavery, Civil War, and Democracy: What Did Lincoln Believe?” in Bill of Rights in Action, Vol. 22 #4. For more about what the Federalist Papers had to say about constitutional government, see CRF’s lesson on the Federalist Papers.